Where children eat mud

Posted: 14 January 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

As we watch from afar and donate what we can (I have chosen to give to Partners in Health), we also need to think about why Haiti is so vulnerable to such a disaster. And for that we need the help of historians, like Alex von Tunzelmann, who, according to the Guardian, is currently writing a book on Haiti, Cuban, and the Dominican Republic.

Last year, she published a short and accessible article in the Times. It’s a good start for anyone who wants to understand the historical roots of the current situation.

“I think the Haitian people have been made to suffer by God,” Wilbert, a teacher, tells me, “but the time will come soon when we will be rewarded with Heaven.”

History tells a different story. The appalling state of the country is a direct result of having offended a quite different celestial authority — the French. France gained the western third of the island of Hispaniola — the territory that is now Haiti — in 1697. It planted sugar and coffee, supported by an unprecedented increase in the importation of African slaves. Economically, the result was a success, but life as a slave was intolerable. Living conditions were squalid, disease was rife, and beatings and abuses were universal. The slaves’ life expectancy was 21 years. After a dramatic slave uprising that shook the western world, and 12 years of war, Haiti finally defeated Napoleon’s forces in 1804 and declared independence. But France demanded reparations: 150m francs, in gold.

For Haiti, this debt did not signify the beginning of freedom, but the end of hope. Even after it was reduced to 60m francs in the 1830s, it was still far more than the war-ravaged country could afford. Haiti was the only country in which the ex-slaves themselves were expected to pay a foreign government for their liberty. By 1900, it was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments. In order to manage the original reparations, further loans were taken out — mostly from the United States, Germany and France. Instead of developing its potential, this deformed state produced a parade of nefarious leaders, most of whom gave up the insurmountable task of trying to fix the country and looted it instead. In 1947, Haiti finally paid off the original reparations, plus interest. Doing so left it destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile. Haiti was trapped in a downward spiral, from which it is still impossible to escape. It remains hopelessly in debt to this day.

It’s that history of slavery, colonialism, U.S. occupation, and, more recently, Haiti’s role as sweatshop of the Caribbean that has created a situation in which “children eat mud,” tens of thousands die from an earthquake, and many more are suffering in its aftermath.

  1. […] long history of colonial abuse, economic exploitation, and violent U.S. intervention (see here and here) when trying to understand Haiti’s poverty – just blame it on their […]

  2. Andrea Todd says:

    I just want to point out that the “where the children eat mud” article goes through every single racist stereotype of Haiti: child slavery; a pitiful population stuck in the past; elevating charity from rich countries above Haitian self-reliance; the “unappreciated White savior” narrative and fear-mongering about Whites being under threat, etc. Yes, the author does mention that the rich countries have been sucking Haiti dry, but that doesn’t excuse the stereotypes she uses. I don’t think racist and skewed reporting like that should be circulated — bigoted stories about Haiti do a lot of harm, no matter how allegedly charitable the intent of the article.

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